Are We Better Off?
The big question of any presidential election year is: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”
While the question was famously posed by Ronald Reagan in a debate with then-President Jimmy Carter (Carter correctly answered, “No,” thus torpedoing his campaign), it’s a perennial. When Herbert Hoover became president in March 1929, things were good. In October, the Great Depression began. Small wonder Franklin Roosevelt won the election of 1932. Everyone was worse off than they were four years earlier.
“It’s the Economy, Stupid!”
The question is, of course, live today. In December, The Brookings Institute reported, “When asked whether economic or social issues would be more important in determining their vote in 2024, 62% of young adults chose economic issues, the largest share of any age cohort, while only 29% opted for social issues.”
James Carville put it succinctly in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid!”
And so, according to NBC News, with good economic news in the past weeks, “The dual challenge now for President Joe Biden… is to keep those trends humming while getting more Americans to notice them.”
Note well that the subject is only economic wellbeing.
Pandering to the People
In 400 BC, Plato’s Socrates saw the same thing all around him and roundly condemned what he saw.
In the dialogue Gorgias, Socrates talks with three rhetoricians — Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles — about what exactly they mean by the “art of rhetoric.” Athens was a democracy and political decisions were made by the demos, the citizens of Athens. Rhetoric was the media of the day. Control the rhetoric and you control the opinions of the voters.
After Socrates brings up the fact that doctors, physical trainers, and businesspeople also make speeches, Gorgias distinguishes political rhetoric as “being able to persuade people by speeches, jurors in a lawcourt, legislators in a council chamber, and those assembled in a deliberative assembly and in every other gathering. And in face, with this power you’ll have the doctor as a slave, the trainer as a slave, and that businessman will be shown up as doing business for someone else and not for himself, namely for you, the one with the power to speak and persuade the multitudes.”
So rhetoric is about power and personal gain since, as Callicles tells him, “living pleasantly consists in this: in having the greatest possible amount flowing in.”
From Socrates’ point of view, this is nothing but pandering, telling them what they want to hear, giving them things they want, and reaping the benefits in power and profit while bringing about disastrous results. The great Pericles, Socrates declares, may have given the people what they wanted, but in the process “made Athenians lazy, cowardly, babbling money-lovers.” Other “great” rulers are those “who’ve feasted these citizens with a lavish supply of the things they desired. And people claim they’ve made a great city, but they don’t recognize that the city is swollen and festering with sores on account of those people of earlier times. Because without temperance and justice they filled the city with harbors and shipyards and walls and tribute and nonsense like that.” They created economic success, he argues, resulting in an inevitable “attack of feebleness.”
The “Better Off” That Matters
The people of Athens became economically better off, but, for Socrates, that doesn’t count as better off. The only better off that matters, he says, is growth in virtue. And with that, Socrates turns to a myth.
Once, he says, humans knew the hour of their deaths. In preparation, a dying person would wear beautiful clothes and kindly visage. (It was a show that the rich could perform much better than the poor.) Then friends and family judged their lives sending them to the joy of the Blessed Isles or the pains of Tartarus. As you might expect, the god in charge of the Blessed Isles complained to Zeus that bad people who belonged in Tartarus were ending up in the Blessed Isles.
In response, Zeus decreed that humans would no longer know the hour of death and that their naked souls would be judged by the gods with utter impartiality — the billionaire and the beggar — since “everything in the soul is plainly visible when it’s made naked and stripped of the body.”
“I look for the way,” says Socrates, “I might display my soul to the judge in the healthiest possible condition.” And politics should encourage every citizen to do the same. Thus, he says, “the way one ought to make use of rhetoric, and every other activity, is always toward the end of what’s just.”
“Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Economically, it seems to me, the jury is still out. As to virtue and justice, our downward trajectory is unabated.
George Will wrote in his 1983 book Statecraft as Soulcraft,
In a world that is increasingly inhospitable to the ideas and disciplines of liberty, this Republic continues to live imprudently off a dwindling legacy of cultural capital which was accumulated in sterner, more thoughtful eras. That legacy is a renewable resource, but it will not regenerate spontaneously. Regeneration is a political choice, a political chore.
Forty years later, it’s our political choice, our political chore to recover the virtues — justice, prudence, temperance, courage, faith, hope, civic friendship — that made our Republic great and can make it great again.
The choice and chore begin in our homes, families, schools, neighborhoods, and churches — today.
James Tonkowich, a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.”